A meta gag in this week’s episode featured a hoodie said to be from the paintball adventure, emblazoned with the message, “It’s all downhill from here.” It would have been kind of funny if it weren’t so true. While Community’s second season has produced some of my favourite episodes – “Accounting For Lawyers,” “Conspiracy Theories and Interior Design,” and “Mixology Certification” – it has also produced some complete garbage – “Anthropology 101,” “Messianic Myths and Ancient Peoples,” and “Epidemiology.” Since returning from its Christmas hiatus, Community hasn’t exactly done anything supremely awful, but it hasn’t been able to lift itself out of its rut either.

To some extent, that’s a result of Community gambling on some storylines that I don’t find compelling, i.e. Pierce’s alienation and subsequent pill addiction, and Shirley’s pregnancy. But to a much larger extent, that’s a product of lazy, unimaginative writing, and “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” was full of it. At best, this week’s episode was limp and boring, and at worst, it made me dislike the characters in ways that I don’t think were intended.

Both of this episode’s subplots involved a stock sitcom device: the misunderstanding. I’m certainly not opposed to these kinds of stock plots – they work because they’re funny – but having two of them in the same episode resulted in some sort of negative synergy effect whereby the two subplots sapped each other of life.

The plot line about Abed and Troy’s genocidal friend just didn’t work. That’s not because genocide is a taboo subject in comedy. In fact, I don’t think that any topic should be off-limits for comedy. But the jokes simply weren’t funny. I went from chuckling at the first burnt village joke to shaking my head at the umpteenth, and there are only so many times that I can think, “Oooh! A funny accent!” and still be amused.

Abed and Troy also grated in this subplot.1 I just didn’t buy that the two of them would be so overtly mean to Britta, someone whom they consider to be a friend. Even less believable was the fact that Abed was socially aware enough to understand that Britta was trying to edge her way into Luka’s life. As for Britta, I was more annoyed than amused that she stole Abed’s DVD (and that plot development could not have been more telegraphed). Consequently, I was irritated with all the characters’ behaviour, and I don’t see how I was supposed to enjoy this plot if I’m supposed to like these characters. Compounded with the fact that this subplot revolved around a giant misunderstanding between Britta, Troy, and Abed, the entire story just fell flat.

Structurally, I think that this subplot suffered from the same problem from which a number of Community’s plot lines suffer. It seemed tailor-made for its central character. It purposely took all of Britta’s character quirks – her tendency to ruin things, her concern for world issues, her hookups with random guys – and amplified them, making her seem like a caricature. It also seemed like a retread of past “Britta is a phony” or “Britta ruins things” plot lines. I’d much rather see characters dropped in unfamiliar or more general situations and watch them react to those than have contrived plot lines which just re-emphasize what we already know about the characters instead of telling us anything new.

I feel similarly about Shirley’s pregnancy plot line, and not just because it involved a misunderstanding that landed Jeff in jail. Shirley is already a mother. Why would I care about her being pregnant? This latest episode made me care about the plot line even less. It made me dislike Shirley, Chang, and even Jeff. The show has taken pathetic!Chang too far. Like I’ve said before, taking Chang out of a teaching position was a mistake, and I miss his scheming, jackass-y side. As for Shirley and Jeff, neither one of them came out of this subplot looking good, and while Jeff was at least called out on his selfishness, I was annoyed by Shirley’s complete lack of sympathy for the fact that Jeff was letting Chang crash at his apartment.

I’m also concerned about the final (possibly unintended) message of this subplot. Nobody seems to care that Chang might actually want to be a good father and/or uncle. Of course, the show had to go to great lengths to demonstrate that Chang is totally unfit for either role, to the point that his behaviour was no longer believable. But even if I did believe it possible, nobody wanted to consider the idea that maybe the reason Chang acts that way is because nobody takes him seriously. Even Andre, who was inexplicably the voice of reason here, dismissed Chang as an ineliminable nuisance.

And that brings me to the final scene at the police station. The dialogue was so on-the-nose that I had to roll my eyes. I don’t enjoy having giant life lessons served to me on a silver platter, and the last thing I want Community to become is preachy. Moreover, if Andre is going to be the voice of reason, I need to understand his character better. I need to understand what made the cheating scumbag whom Shirley hated for most of the first season turn his life around and decide to be a better man, and furthermore, I need to see what makes him such a good man now. Andre has appeared in only two episodes so far, and that’s not enough to make me forget a season and half’s worth of mistrust for the character built up by Shirley’s attitude toward him.

I could also add that I didn’t find anything about this subplot funny, but I think I’ve dumped on this episode enough. “Custody Law and Eastern European Diplomacy” wasn’t offensively bad, but it wasn’t good either, like most of this post-Christmas run. Community has become lazy and unimaginative, and now that it has started making its characters unlikable, I don’t know if I even want to like the show anymore.

1 That’s a sentence I never thought I’d be typing.